The Starz Denver Film Festival opens tonight, November 6th, at 8 p.m. with its Red Carpet Presentation of Labor Day.
Labor Day offers a disturbingly effective trifecta of performances by Josh Brolin (Juno) Kate Winslet (Titanic, The Reader) and 14-year old Gattlin Griffith. The script, well-designed, if speckled with implausibilities, weaves a story of love, loss and recovery that is both intense and intimate. The chemistry between Adele (Winslet) and Frank (Brolin) builds slowly and with incredible tension. Given that she’s an agoraphobic wreck and he’s an escapee from the local prison where he was serving time for murder, their relationship is difficult to swallow, yet these accomplished actors and their wounded characters make it utterly convincing.
As the story unfolds, quick flashbacks reveal glimpses into their tragic pasts and eventually shed light on how they each came to be in such dire straits. The storyline stays centered on Adele’s son Henry, who narrates the film with reflections on the awakenings of passion and keeps us rooted in a strange combination of fear and hope that the inevitable capture will come.
This experience of confusion between rooting for the heroine and her son to be saved and wanting to see them all run off to start a new life together provides an eerie echo of the experience of passion itself, with its mixture of fear, dread, glee and excitement. No less artfully, the theme, stated by Frank early in the film, that “people are often misled by the truth” resonates throughout the story, until the end. And when, in a climactic scene, Henry tells a suspicious bank teller that they’re withdrawing all that cash so they can make a run for it, she laughs at his “joke” while handing the money over, proving Frank’s theory to be true.
This is a film that lures us into its grips from the opening shot with its sinister yet alluring music. A canopy of Massachusetts foliage provides both shadow and light on the approach to a small riverside town filled with busybodies and well-intentioned clerks. Reitman has succeeded once again to cull magnificent performances from his actors as well as craft a visual delight.
The quirky relationship Griffith has with the new girl in town, who opens his eyes to ideas such as emancipation and incest, offers welcome needed relief from the claustrophobic experience of Adele’s house, which she only leaves once a month “for supplies” and where she transforms from victim to impassioned heroine.
The plot is steady and nearly seamless, the performances packed with power and nuance, and the dialogue crisp, spare, and inspired. All of these strengths make it easy to overlook the occasional obviousness, tinges of predictability, slight contrivances, and even the Hollywood ending tacked on needlessly. For all its subtle manipulations, this is a film that on the whole does not fail to penetrate our typical notions of love with it suspenseful dance between fear and romance.
While not based on a true story, Labor Day’s screenplay was adapted from a novel by Joyce Maynard and written for the screen by the director. The loaded, poetic dialogue, unifying theme, and tightly focused storyline are perfect examples of the level to which anyone crafting a character-driven drama should aspire.
Tickets are still available for this and many other films at the festival, which runs through November 17th.
Release: Paramount Pictures, December 25, 2013 (Limited)
Candace Kearns Read is the author of Shaping True Story into Screenplay, a handbook for screenwriters adapting from real life.